Petra: a quick overview
Nestling in the remote, rugged highlands of southern Jordan, Petra was the magnificent capital of the Nabataeans and an important centre of the ancient world. A people of nomadic heritage from the deserts of Arabia, the Nabataeans had become dominant in the deserts of southern Jordan from at least the fourth century BC, expanding into southern Palestine and the Sinai during the third century BC and establishing their own independent state by the second century BC, of whom the first recorded king was Aretas I in 168BC. Their power was based on a control of the lucrative trading routes by which aromatic gums like frankincense and myrrh were shipped north from southern Arabia and Petra, or 'Raqmu', as the Nabataeans called it themselves, was the great seat of power from which their international kingdom was overseen. The Nabataean kingdom flourished through the second and the first centuries BC but began to dwindle in the first century AD when the Romans diverted the desert trade upon which its wealth depended over the Red Sea to Egypt. After centuries of independence, the Nabataean kingdom was finally taken over by the Roman Empire on the death of King Rabbel II in 106AD, with Petra falling gradually more quiet over the following centuries. Its heyday was relatively shortlived but Petra nevertheless stands as one of the most unique, remarkable and beautiful cities ever created; a rock-hewn realm whose architecture and engineering reflect the inimitable vision of a nomadic people who used their deep knowledge of the natural world to create a city that could thrive in a mountain wilderness. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, Petra is one of the most extraordinary places on earth, with much more to show than what most visitors ever see.
Petra is one of the great wonders of the world & a minimum of 2-3 days is needed to see the best of what it has to offer. Tickets can be purchased at the Visitor Centre, open 6am-6pm. One day tickets cost 50JOD; two days, 55JOD & three days 60JOD, with anybody buying a three day ticket getting the fourth day free. Tickets count for consecutive days only & passports must be shown when buying. Another option is the Jordan Pass; a national sightseeing ticket valid for 40+ attractions in Jordan which if purchased online before arrival by those staying at least three nights in Jordan waives the costs of a 40JOD tourist visa. The Jordan pass comes in three tiers of JOD70, JOD75 and JOD80, with the most expensive option giving three day access to Petra. Buying a Jordan Pass ahead of a visit is recommended for those who will enter on an any route bypassing the main entry gate such as hikers traversing the Bedouin Trail the opposite way, from Luxor to Petra. The site is policed by rangers who do random ticket checks & although hikers with a Bedouin guide & valid reason for not buying a ticket on entry will generally be not be penalised - on the condition they buy a ticket on their exit - it is more simple to buy ahead, with the Jordan Pass best. Petra gets busy from 8am-4pm. It is best visited early & early risers who arrive at 6am will be able to walk a virtually deserted city. All visitors must leave Petra before sunset & camping in the complex is forbidden. Alongside Petra, the Visitor Centre houses an old museum worth a look; entry is free & opening hours 7am-8pm. Another excellent modern museum stands close to the Visitor Centre, known as the Petra Museum. Entry is also free at this site, with the opening hours 7am-8.30pm.
Bab el Siq
Bab means door or gate in Arabic, with a Siq a natural narrowing, referring in this case to the canyon through which Petra is entered. The Bab el Siq is a wide, open area before the Siq, forming the lower part of Wadi Musa; the valley from which Petra's adjoining modern town takes its name. Rock-hewn caves and monuments dot both sides of the Bab el Siq, with the earliest dating from around the first century BC. Three squat towers known as the Jinn blocks stand on the right side a short way down; Jinn is the Arabic word for spirits and these towers - along with around 20 others scattered around Petra - were once believed to mark spots where jinn dwelled. Whilst some argue these were shrines or altars most archaeologists now believe the Nabataeans used them as tombs. On the left after the Jinn blocks is a rock-hewn tomb with four Egyptian-style obelisks across its front. In the Nabataean funerary tradition, each obelisk symbolised the soul of a person inside, with the small room below the tomb the place memorial feasts were held in their honour. A path winds into hills from green gardens on the left after this, leading to El Madras, where courtyards, water basins and altars are found; probably once used for religious sacrifice. Other paths can be taken from here to the high cliffs offering spectacular views of Petra's Treasury, but Bedouin guides should be used for both sections. A rock-hewn tunnel called El Muthlim is seen on the right before the Siq is entered, which the Nabataeans created to redirect powerful flash floods that would run down the Siq to other areas.
HIKES IN PETRA
Temples, tombs & other monuments are scattered widely across Petra, connected by an extensive network of Nabataean pathways & staircases. These old ways are well-hidden & mostly off-the-tourism-map; hard to find & often tricky to follow. Um el Biyaara is a high, sloping tableland with spectacular views over the ancient city up which a modern path runs. Jebel Khubtha offers another good hike with a modern path to the top. It also has lesser-known Nabataean pathways for which a rope will be needed for tricky downclimbs. Jebel Haroon is a high, holy peak with a modern path to the summit. Guides should be employed from the Bidool clan of the Howaytat tribe, who once lived amidst the caves of Petra but who now live in a nearby village known as Um Sayhoun. It is through the Bidool the first section of the Bedouin Trail can be organised too.
The Siq is the winding, shadowy chasm leading to the heart of ancient Petra. The city can be entered on other impressive routes too but with its high, colourful sides and carved monuments along the way the Siq is a passageway of unparalleled splendour. Sandstone slabs once paved the Siq of which a few still remain today and rock-hewn channels that once carried water from faraway springs to the city centre line its sides. Carvings of gods, goddesses, lions, leopards and small obelisks can be spotted throughout the Siq and some suggest ornamental paintings might once have decorated its sides too. Half way along the Siq is a freestanding block of stone in whose sides a carving of a doorway and two Nabataean deities - most probably those known as Dushara and Al Uzza - can be seen. Most archaeologists believe these carvings were made under the reign for King Malichus II; the father of Rabbel II, the last Nabataean king to rule Petra before it was taken over by the Romans. A little further down on the left side is a near life-sized carving of a merchant leading a caravan of three camels. Only the merchant's legs stand out clearly today. The vague forms of his upper body and camels are also visible, but more poorly defined. This carving is perhaps the most evocative of all, giving a reminder of the traffic that would have once passed up and down the Siq, upon which Petra's wealth and power was based. A short way after this, through the last narrows the Siq, hikers will get their first glimpse of Petra's most spectacular monument of all: The Treasury.
Petra's best known monument, its English name is a translation of the Arabic title El Khazna, meaning the Treasury. Its full title is Khazna el Faraoon, which actually means The Pharaoh's Treasury; some say after an old legend which relates how the Pharaoh who chased Moses out of Egypt escaped the closing of the Red Sea to pursue him here, storing the riches his men had carried in this building. The urn standing on the circular roof at the top of the Treasury still bears the bullet marks of marksmen who it is said took aim believing their fire would open a magic portal to a realm of gold and treasure. Archaeologists today agree this building was not used to store treasure of any kind, including the wealth of the Nabataeans. Some have suggested it was a temple; others, a place to store documents or the tomb of a Nabataean king such as Aretas III (84-61BC) or perhaps the memorial mausoleum of his father Obodas I (96-85BC). Created in the first century BC, it is built on two floors and has three chambers inside. Its design draws on Hellenistic architecture from Alexandria. Figures known from Greek mythology such as the female warriors of the Amazons and the snake-headed Medusa are seen, along with symbols of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis and representations of the Nabataean goddess Al Uzza. Whilst much about the Treasury is still unknown, its design shows the openness of the Nabataeans to absorb the art, myths and religious figures of other civilisations and set down a template used to design other buildings in Petra, from temples to the tombs of later Nabataean kings.
The Nabataeans created several theatres, the largest of which stands in the main wadi running through the centre of the city; a few hundred metres down from the Treasury. Its auditorium held at least 4000 people and was made under King Aretas IV, who ruled Petra from 9BC-AD40. Whilst little is known about what the Nabataeans actually watched in their theatres, dramas, dancing and concerts have all been suggested. The Nabataeans cut this theatre into the cliffs, clearing an old burial ground for its construction. The fronts of some of Petra's oldest remaining tombs can be seen behind it in several rows today. The royal tombs of Petra's early kings stand nearby, on the other side of the wadi.
The Royal Necropolis
Petra's many tombs might give the impression it was one giant necropolis; a city of the dead as much as one of the living. Nevertheless, with its houses, markets, civic buildings and a large, bustling community of locals it would once have been a vibrant hub of activity in which these tombs had a more peripheral focus. The Royal Tombs stand a short way from the theatre, cut into sandstone cliffs at the bottom of Jebel el Khubtha, and their elaborate fronts make it immediately clear they housed people of special status. It is thought Rabbel II - the last Nabataean king to rule Petra before it was taken over by the Romans in 106AD - is buried in the so-called Palace Tomb; a pretty tomb built on three stories, of which the highest is mostly collapsed. Another called the Corinthian Tomb was built in the same style as the Treasury and may have belonged to King Malichus II; the father of Rabbel II, who died in 70AD. The Silk Tomb is a smaller tomb, best-known for the vivid red, white and gold swirls in its sandstone. Most scholars suggest this belonged to a high-ranking royal official. The biggest, most impressive tomb of all is the Urn Tomb; standing on two rows of archways with a high, impressive front, some believe this was the tomb of Aretas IV, who died in 40AD and who may have been joined here later by his two wives. A short walk north of these royal tombs is the mausoleum of Sextius Florentinus; a Roman Governor who died around 129AD - some two decades after Rome had absorbed Petra into its empire - and who was interred in this particular spot on his own request.
Hundreds of tombs, temples and other buildings in Petra were hewn directly out of the city's soft sandstone. Nevertheless, its city centre was assembled mostly from blocks of quarried stone. A grand paved street lined with high columns ran through Petra's centre, around which arched gateways, bathhouses, public courtyards, lush gardens and artificial pools with ornamental islands were all found in ancient times. Around half way along the street and covering an area of nearly 8000 square metres is one of Petra's most important buildings: the so-called Great Temple. Indian elephants are carved into some of its columns and a small auditorium is found in one of its back precincts. Archaeologists generally agree this was probably not a temple but a palace, banqueting hall or meeting place for city councils. Two real temples are found nearby, including the Temple of the Winged Lions on the other side of the street. Its name comes from the flying lions carved on its columns and it may have been dedicated to the Nabataean goddess Al Uzza. Further down the street on the left side is the temple of Qasr el Bint. It is unclear which god it honours but it was built on the site of an earlier structure under King Obodas III (30-9BC). Its full name is Qasr el Bint el Faraoon, which means the Palace of the Pharaoh's daughter; after a legend the Pharaoh's daughter was either imprisoned inside or lived here more happily, marrying a Nabataean man from Petra. Nabataean residential areas, Byzantine churches and Crusader forts from later times also dot the city centre.
El Deir means The Monastery in Arabic, reflecting a period in Byzantine times when this building was used as a church. One of Petra's best-known monuments, it was constructed towards the end of the first century BC and its original purpose is still debated by archaeologists. On account of an inscription inside which refers to King Obodas I as a God, some believe it was a temple for a cult that deified him after his death in 85BC. It may also have been a funerary monument to his memory. El Deir stands in a more remote part of Petra and is reached on a steep stairway that continues up here from the paved street through Petra's historic centre. Another trail can be taken north from El Deir to the outlying site of Little Petra.
The high places
Whilst little is known with certainty about the religious customs of the Nabataeans, archaeologists believe at least some of Petra's neighbouring mountains were used in sacrificial ceremonies. Known as Jebel Madbah in Arabic or the High Place of Sacrifice in English, the most famous one rises south of Petra's theatre. Rock-hewn stairways lead to its high peak from different sides and altars, Egyptian-style obelisks and a large platform where it is suggested priests conducted sacrificial ceremonies stand on top. Another high place of sacrifice with altars, water tanks, courtyards and feasting areas stands on top of Jebel el Khubtha, which rises above the Royal Necropolis and which can be climbed on a modern path that follows an old Nabataean stairway, starting near the tomb of Sextius Florentinus. Another high place that may have been used for sacrifice is found in an area known as El Madras, to which a path leads from the Bab el Siq area. Um el Biyaara is another highland rising above Petra whose summit seems to have had uses beyond those for sacrificial ceremonies. The relics of an early settlement built by the Edomites - a Biblical kingdom that preceded the Nabataeans in these deserts - are found on its sloping summit plateau. Others ruins are found from Nabataean times, including ones believed to be a palace, bathhouse and observation tower. Deep, rock-hewn cisterns that still gather water today - from which Um el Biyaara or the 'Mother of Wells' takes its name - are found on the mountain too and some suggest it was a refuge to which Nabataean royals retreated during times of danger.
Other things to see
Tombs, shrines and other lesser-known monuments all stand around Petra's city centre. A group of churches dating from Byzantine times are found near the Temple of the Winged Lions. An old Nabataean place of sacrifice and the ruins of a Crusader fort stand on top of a low, rocky outcrop near Qasr el Bint, known as El Habees. A pathway leads up its southern side and superb views open over Petra's old city from its summit. Scattering the hinterlands of Petra are more tombs, theatres and Jinn blocks, similar to those found in the Bab el Siq area. One of the Jinn blocks to the south of the city centre is capped with a free-standing carving of a coiled serpent, which some archaeologists claim is one of the earliest monuments in Petra. Known as the 'Snake Monument' it is suggested by some the snake stands as the tomb's guardian. Jebel Haroun is the highest peak around Petra and its 1350m summit - giving spectacular views over the vast sweeping lowlands of Wadi Araba to Palestine and beyond - can be hiked there and back in a long day. Haroun is the Arabic name for Aaron; the brother of Moses who accompanied him during The Exodus out of Egypt, dying on a mountain called Mount Hor, which is believed to be the summit of Jebel Haroun. Another hike can be done from El Deir to Siq el Barid or, as it is more commonly known, Little Petra. A small group of temples, tombs and rooms used for memorial feasts are hewn into the rock with painted frescoes visible in places here. Allow a day between El Deir and Siq el Barid and use a Bedouin guide for all longer hikes.